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Teaching English in China: Adults Vs Children
2019-12-02

Many looking to teach ESL in China come into the field with virtually no experience. Stepping in front of a class of 40 kids with no real idea of what you’re doing can be rather daunting. As a result, most newbies initially look for jobs tutoring older students or adults, only to find that are much fewer options. But which is better overall? Today, I’m going to look at the pros and cons of teaching ESL in Chinat o both adults and children to help you make an informed, if not the right, choice.


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The PROS of teaching English to adults in China


Emerging science suggests that the human brain isn’t fully developed until it's 25 years old. That means kids are literally unable to grasp the long-term benefits of learning like most normal adults and instinctively would rather be doing pretty much anything else besides studying. This can make teaching kids difficult, even in a highly competitive schooling system like China’s.


Those new to teaching ESL in China will need time to learn on the job and the support of a good school management team, both of which can be in short supply. This problem is largely absent from teaching adults, as most adults, especially in China, are paying quite a bit to take classes. They want their money’s worth so will be giving you their undivided attention, which of course makes teaching much easier.


Moving to a new country for work is a daunting experience and making friends can be difficult. But if your students are all adults, you’re walking into a potential pre-made social circle. There will always be adult students who want to practice their English outside of class and (on a more cynical note) for free. In exchange for this opportunity, they will no doubt be more than willing to show you around their city, introducing you to sights, restaurants, and information that only a local knows. They will also be able to help you with any problems that might arise requiring superior Chinese language skills or guanxi that you lack as a foreigner.


Adult students may also be useful when it comes to future work opportunities. Many teachers of adults in China transition to better schools or different careers with the support of or recommendations from students. Adults learning English in China naturally have better opportunities, and a few friends in high places can go a long way here.


Finally, adult students will teach you a lot about China. During classes they can explain cultural customs, history, and their points of view on a range of subjects to help you understand China on a level far beyond what you can get from younger students. If your goal is to learn more about China, teaching adults will make this much easier.


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The CONS of teaching English to adults in China 


Decent jobs teaching ESL to adults in China are relatively scarce and they tend to offer lower salaries in comparison to jobs with younger leaners. In addition, adults progress rather slowly compared to children. For teachers who take pride in seeing their students progress, this can lead to lower job satisfaction over time.


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The PROS of teaching English to children in China


We can pretty much just flip the cons of teaching adults: way more job opportunities, higher pay, and a greater sense of satisfaction in watching your students progress. The value Chinese parents place on the education of their children is immense and, combined with China’s massive population and high level of competition, this creates a gigantic market of lucrative job opportunities for foreign English teachers.  


Teaching children also often affords a more flexible schedule. Most adult learners have to go to work during the day, which necessitates evening and weekend hours. But with the wide range of ages available when teaching kids, you can pretty much pick and choose when you want to work. Like to work mornings only? Kindergarten. Want an 8-4 job? Primary and middle school. Want to do evenings? Tutoring or test preparation.


Another often overlooked benefit of teaching English to kids in China is the effect it will have on your overall teaching skills. Assuming you actually want to teach your students something, educating young kids will vastly improve your teaching abilities compared to teaching adults. Class management, ICQs (Instruction Checking Questions), CCQs (Concept Checking Question), student engagement, and course design are just a few of the skills you will develop when teaching English to children in China. If you can teach Chinese kids, you can teach anyone!


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The CONS of teaching English to children in China


Remember all of those cool teaching skills we were just talking about? They can come at the cost of your sanity. Managing a group of 20-40 kids is a steep learning curve for new teachers, and while you’re learning, you’ll often want to die. And no matter how good a teacher you are, there will always be a few students who don’t respond to management and make your life difficult.


This segues into the next problem: Chinese for-profit schools. The vast majority of for-profit schools in China are poorly run cash grabs focused on taking parents’ money and little else. Many will not have your back when it comes to managing kids or changing the curriculum if it involves more work and will often opt for the easiest (read: worst) solution.


As those teaching ESL in China tend to be quite transient, digging your heels in to change the system for the better will often be unappreciated if not scorned by the Chinese staff. Even if you do get a new policy through, it’s likely to fall apart when you leave. Additionally, Chinese schools tend to attract much more careful oversight, meaning teachers are more likely be micromanaged and second guessed than those working with adults.


And when it comes to Chinese school children themselves, their lives generally suck. They’re in school from the ages of 2 to 18, their entire lives revolve around academic performance, and there’s a huge amount of pressure to excel. Watching a 14-year-old with grey hair and a stress rash trying to cope with insane amounts of work is soul-crushing and can make teaching kids in China difficult long-term.


Carefully consider what you want out of the experience before choosing which age group to teach in China. As always, please feel free to sound off in the comments section below if you think we missed any vital points.


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